by Jessica Martin-Weber
The holidays can be such a beautiful time of the year, magical and enchanted. With over 30 faith-based and cultural holidays between November 1st and December 31 for many this time of year is a time for family, connection, and community. With our pumpkin spice lattes in hand we suck in the sights and smells of the season finding warmth in the reliable music, flavors, and sparkle that drives the beat of this anchor of our annual rhythm as a society.
For many, gift giving is a central focal point in all the celebrating. Time, energy, and of course money is spent in finding just the right items for the special people in our lives. Perhaps none more-so than children.
I love gift giving. It is a year-long quest for me to find the right gifts for those I love and those I appreciate. There was a time when I pressured myself to only have the most perfect and unique items as gifts. Hours searching for and budgeting, even more hours spent hand-making items I would be proud to give, and then painstaking beautiful gift wrapping, usually with reusable items that would be a gift itself. I put so much pressure on myself to make gift giving magical, magazine worthy.
I still enjoy the process of selecting and in some cases making gifts that I feel connect with and show my love and appreciation for someone. But I’ve scaled way back, limit my time and energy focused on gifts. Having children showed me that I don’t have to kill myself making the season magical, it already is magical.
What did begin to emerge though was that some of the magic was getting lost in the pressure of gift giving. Worse, my children seemed to really only care about the gifts they would receive and the special fun experiences they would have during the season. They certainly understood the magic of giving but did they know the joy of giving? Did they connect with their community? Did they appreciate the beauty of the season beyond what they would get out of it? Did they think of others?
My husband and I decided it was time to reevaluate how we approached the holidays.
It’s been years since the first holiday season where we scaled back and now we wouldn’t have it any other way. The magic isn’t something I have to kill myself making happen, it’s already there and now we’re participating together as a family in creating for each other and others. We’re not seeking to impress, we’re simply seeking to give back and express our gratitude for our family, what we have, and for our community.
Here’s how we made it happen.
First, we sat down and discussed what we felt really was important to us. For us it was connection, time to together, and giving back to our community.
Next, we identified the barriers to those values. Being too busy, too much pressure to shop/bake/craft/go to every experience, and financial stress were our big ones.
Once we knew what the barriers were, we made decisions about how to remove as many as possible. This meant making some difficult choices and letting go of expectations but it was amazing to see how many of them we didn’t even enjoy but felt obligated to do.
Then we had a family meeting. We shared our thoughts with our children and asked for their input. They had some great ideas and we made a plan.
Together we agreed on the family traditions we wanted to be sure we kept. They were surprisingly very simple: go together to pick out our Christmas tree (where we see Santa and get our picture because we decided to skip the mall), decorate together while playing Christmas music, have one day of family baking together, go look at Christmas lights while drinking hot cocoa, read the Christmas story on Christmas Eve, the scavenger hunt Christmas morning to fill their “stocking” (which often isn’t a stocking but rather something useful like a new backpack or bag), and go out to breakfast as a family on Christmas morning… in our pajamas. Everything else was if it happened, it happened, great but no stress that it HAD to happen.
After establishing what traditions were important to us, we explored how we could connect with our community and give back, asking what could become a new tradition. Our children were the first to point out that they didn’t need more stuff but we all agreed that giving and receiving is fun. So we revamped our own family gift giving approach, pairing it way down with a focus on giving experiences rather than stuff and choosing non-profits to support.
Santa Clause is a part of our family tradition and when our children age out of Santa, they have the opportunity to help be the spirit of Santa for others. Not only in setting out the simple gifts Santa brings in our home but the entire season. During the holidays they are charged with noticing the people struggling around them and seek ways to anonymously brighten their spirits- little notes, acts of kindness, treats, and small gifts. An intention that ends up extending well beyond the holiday season, becoming a part of the fabric of the entire year.
We came up with a number of new traditions that help share the magic with others. On Christmas day we’ll go visit a nursing home/assisted living centers, Veterans’ hospital, or other center where people are often lonely and disconnected. We bring some home baked goods if allowed, puzzles, coloring pages, and games and spend some time with the residents that don’t have family with them. For our extended family we give a donation in their name to a nonprofit we choose together as a family and let them know with a card, removing the stress of trying to find the perfect gift. We’ll “adopt” a family in need or foster children through a non-profit organization or our school or church or that we just happen to know is struggling and anonymously leave gifts for them with our children being involved in putting these together. Some years we serve holiday meals at a soup kitchen or through another organization. It varies every year and we don’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do a lot, just what we feel we can manage well at the time.
Perhaps the most magical thing that has come of this shift in our family is how our children love becoming holiday elves themselves. “Elving” is now the biggest highlight of the season, not what they receive. As I write this mid November, I realize I haven’t heard a single mention of what any of my children want for gifts for themselves. But they have shared ideas for how we’re giving back and connecting with the community. They are particularly interested in collecting blankets, coats, hats, scarves, and socks to distribute amongst the homeless in our community.
Now we keep in mind that connecting with and giving back to our community isn’t just a seasonal goal, it’s all year long. For many, the needs do increase around the holidays and it is a good place to start. But we keep in mind that we want to be investing in our community and caring for others all year long and we check our intentions as well. This is an excellent article on why it is important to also volunteer and support nonprofits just as much in April as in December.
Looking for ways for your family to give back, help bring magic to others, and connect with your community? These 5 tips will get you started.
Be realistic about what you can and cannot manage including your budget, the health developmental stages of your children, and time commitments.
Read reviews of organizations you may consider partnering with, though some are very well known many of the larger ones have practices that may concern you. Give of your resources and time responsibly. (Two websites to help with that would be charitywatch.org and charitynavigator.org)
For ideas near you locally, check in local social media groups, neighborhood apps (such as NextDoor and the BuyNothingApp), and area schools and churches.
Consider organizations that prioritize foster children and other children in need particularly those that focus on 12+ as that age group often is not eligible through many of the more popular holiday gifting charity programs.
If you’re overwhelmed trying to find a specific charity, try something smaller to ease into it such as 12-30 days of acts of kindness together as a family (shovel a neighbors driveway, drop off cookies for the school office, make decorations for a nursing home, etc.) or a reverse Advent calendar where you shop for items to donate to a local food bank but stock in your pantry and each day the kids open the calendar to find an item to pull from the pantry to put in a box to donate.
There are as many ways to connect and give back as there are renditions of any holiday song and even more to come up with. Find something that works for you and give it a go and watch the magic light up your family.